Bloomfield Hills Superintendent Pat Watson addresses students and parents at a community collaboration event Nov. 16.

Bloomfield Hills Superintendent Pat Watson addresses students and parents at a community collaboration event Nov. 16.

Photo by Brendan Losinski

Bloomfield Hills Schools community debates policies following racist threats

By: Brendan Losinski | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published December 6, 2021


BLOOMFIELD HILLS — Bloomfield Hills Schools officials said they are examining their policies and procedures for responding to incidents of hate after threats to African American students were found written on bathroom walls at Bloomfield Hills High School and posted on social media.

The threats, coupled with what many students and parents called a slow or muted response from district administrators, caused a student walkout at the high school Nov. 12.

“The day of the walkout, there was a lot of energy. Students had been pretty frenzied and pretty stressed out for a few days at that point,” explained Jaanaki Radhakrishnan, a BHHS senior and one of the founders of the school’s Student Equity Council. “At 1:30 p.m. the students left their classes and walked out in front of the school and a sort of rally took place, and the student organizers spoke and then opened the floor up to those in the crowd. I know there were parents and community members who were supporting it from across the parking lot.”

District administrators did not wish to comment directly on the matter, but they did put out several press releases to the public and families in the district regarding the racist incidents, the walkout, and the effects of both.

“These recent incidents have created emotional strain on our entire community, and for many, creating fear and emotional distress,” Superintendent Pat Watson said in a press release. “District and building administration have had difficult conversations with our students and staff over the past several weeks, and know we will emerge stronger as a result of this open dialogue. Our top priority is to provide a safe and productive environment for our students to learn.”

Following the walkout, the district scheduled a community collaboration event on Nov. 16 where students and staff could speak directly to administrators and each other regarding the recent events.

Among those in attendance was Trek Carethers and his wife, Brenda. The parents of a sophomore at Bloomfield Hills High School, Trek and Brenda were among many parents who called the district’s response slow and criticized them for a lack of communication and transparency.

“I think that after looking at the school code and district policy, the timeliness of the investigation is just too slow,” said Trek. “The school is permitted almost a month to investigate something. That is totally inadequate when you have complaints coming in. If you have two complaints and six more come in while you are investigating, what are you going to do? This is important, because the students don’t see anything happening. They think you are condoning it.”

Both parents said they were not out to place blame following the incidents, but that decisive action has to be taken.

“I went through this school system myself,” remarked Trek. “I love this community. I grew up in this community. My son is part of this community. Everyone here does not want this situation. I am not here to blame the administration or call anyone racist or engage in any of that rhetoric. I am not demanding the expulsion of any particular students. I am here because we want effective change.”

Many students also spoke at the event, including Radhakrishnan.

“I think (the student reactions) varied depending on the student,” she said. “Black students in particular were very fed up and frustrated, and all of the stirring of the pot that was taking place was really bringing up years and years of trauma from going to predominantly white schools. I know some students were posting pictures of these incidents around the school. Among white students, I saw a lot of guilt, a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, and a lot of confusion about what to do. In some ways, it was refreshing, because I saw an attitude of change that I hadn’t really seen before.”

Radhakrishnan and other students brought forth suggestions to administration that they believe could improve the response to hate incidents and make students feel safer. She said that while student privacy laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevent the schools from publically releasing specific punishments for students, there are steps that can be taken to demonstrate that a strong and significant response has taken place.

“I have a lot more insight into what the administration does than most students because I work so closely with the administration, but I think that for the first time in a long time we’ve been seeing the administrators respond strongly,” she said. “As far as I know, every reported incident this year has received a full investigation and suspensions have taken place. I think what is missing is transparency, so students know what is going on. I know there is a lot they can’t say because of FERPA, but students should know that when they report something it is being addressed.”

She added that the other big step she would like to see is how the district responds to those responsible for acts of hate.

“We’d also like to see more restorative justice elements in these responses as well. Things like racism and homophobia are societal issues and won’t be fixed by suspending a kid,” said Radhakrishnan. “This would mean those who commit these acts going through some education. When a student is caught vaping, they have to do a bunch of reading and create a presentation about why vaping is so harmful so the school knows they are now educated on the issue. There is no reason that vaping should be taken more seriously than hateful acts against marginalized communities.”

Radhakrishnan said she would also like to see more equity education in the classroom and equity training for staff members.

Parents, too, brought forth suggestions at the collaboration event.

“A group of parents knew this meeting was going to occur and sat down and wrote a list of recommendations. We presented that document to the superintendent and principal,” said Trek. “The top three things (include) improved transparency to parents so they can make a reasonable determination about what the threat level is to their children. The second is that complaints about (incidents and threats) are taken seriously. There should be a mandatory and timely investigation into all threats, followed by actions which are sufficient to protect the community and our children. The third is any time someone has been found to have been involved in these acts, whether they are suspended or not, they should have to mandatorily have to do either community service for a day or write a paper about why their acts were wrong and how they impacted the community. At least at that point in time, that would mean they’ve had to do some self reflection about what they’ve done.”

One Bloomfield Hills High School student and their parents have filed a lawsuit against the district, naming both Watson and Bloomfield Hills High School Principal Charlie Hollerith as defendants, as well as the district as an entity. The suit alleges that the district has failed to provide African American students with a safe, healthy, and non-discriminatory environment, and that the district has failed to take reasonable steps to counter discriminatory acts by students and staff in the schools.

Bloomfield Hills Schools Administrators could not be reached for comment regarding the suit.

District leaders stated that they will be responding with further professional development for staff, including training focused on materials from Learning for Justice and Edutopia’s Guide to Equity and Anti-Racism, and that staff will have a Q&A with Watson and Bloomfield Hills High School Principal Charlie Hollerith. They also stated external consultants are being brought in to advise them and that they will also be reviewing the district’s hate incident procedures and reporting form with students, and that the high school will have an increased police presence and counselors available onsite throughout the week.

Whether students and parents feel this response is sufficient remains to be seen.

“I do not feel comfortable with my son coming here,” said Trek. “One of the things we were very upset about is that when my wife and I were receiving notices from the school about what was happening, it said ‘a racist incident’ happened. It minimized (that there was a threat). When we found out what actually happened (and African American students were threatened with violence) we realized we weren’t given enough knowledge to make reasonable decisions as to how to protect our son. … I was very startled when I learned about this. A ‘racist incident’ sounds very minor.”